The rabbi in Concord, N.H., where I grew up, sent out an email to congregants this week explaining that the front doors of our temple will now be locked during religious school. It is a prudent security step. But it’s hard to stomach the physical hardening of a place I bounded freely through as a child — a seamless doorway between secular and spiritual, where engagement with community outside is as sacred as the Torah scrolls inside.
I learned about the Pittsburgh shooting in the dark, preparing to hike into a remote canyon near Escalante. Though I ached to be with my community, the desert offered an extraordinary temple. Light spilled through holes in the rock into a deep pool of water. Nestled in the canyon, my grief had a corner to safely dwell against solid walls. Yet stepping back into some of the most sublime landscape on Earth, hopeful ideas flourished.
Since coming to Utah, I have seen that one such idea is that stopping firearm deaths requires working closely with gun-owning families. Finding common ground between health professionals and gun owners isn’t always easy. There is something unexpected about such partnership, in part because the reality of suicide being driven by gun access (and gun deaths being driven by suicide) is only beginning to gain widespread attention.
Early on, some people asked me whether I was capitulating to gun interests through this collaboration. But I know that open dialogue is not only possible, but necessary.
In her 2016 book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Arlie Russell Hochschild notes, “We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the ‘other’ side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of the bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”
This is my experience. In the face of crisis, we typically sink into either-or thinking and false dichotomies. But nontraditional partners make us think bigger and smarter, connecting the data with culturally relevant messages and messengers. Such collaboration is not only possible, but is crucial to saving lives.
I remember moving through the crowd after a Utah March for Our Lives event to thank an opposition organizer for his group’s respectful presence and to ask for his reflections. He stared at me for a few moments. Then he told me how much it meant that I’d come over. He was saddened to overhear people saying his group threatened the safety of the event, when their goal is the opposite: to save lives while protecting rights. We may not agree on much, but there is something profound about the recognition that we all want our loved ones to be safe.
I felt that empathy this past week, when several gun owners I know reached out. One wrote: “Morissa, our hearts are with you and the Jewish people everywhere tonight. Hate will not prevail, it will be defeated altogether.”
His comment embodied the values of community safety and preventing persecution that I hear often among gun owners. It occurred to me that many of them own AR-15s. Ironically, they may have a more visceral sense than most of the scene that unfolded in Pittsburgh, knowing how easy this gun is to shoot and how much damage it inflicts.
It will take hard work and more trust to extend the lessons and strategies from our suicide prevention work to other types of gun deaths. And I recognize that focusing on guns doesn’t necessarily address the hatred that leads people to use guns in horrific ways. But I do know that moving outside of ideological camps and combative positions makes us all more loving, hopeful and connected. And that’s the stuff that fights hate.
The day after the Pittsburgh shooting, a bouquet of flowers was left at our New Hampshire synagogue front door. An accompanying, unsigned note began: “I am so very sorry. All of us deserve peace, hope, and a safe place to live and love.”
Now is a time to come together. As we explore our own deep canyons of sorrow, we must also remember the expansive landscape of hope that exists beyond our walls. As we close our doors tighter, we must open our hearts even wider.
Morissa Sobelson Henn lives in Salt Lake City. She is a doctor of public health candidate at Harvard University.